Set the food mood

Is food styling like setting the table?

December 20, 2010

Editor’s note: Want to win a copy of Dolores Custer’s new book, Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera? Leave a comment about your favorite tried-and-true tip for entertaining at the end of this article. On December 23 at noon PST, we’ll draw two winners randomly from among all the commenters. Good luck, everyone!

Pumpkins in May. Peaches in December. As I’ve learned on the job, professional food styling seldom begins with ingredients that are fresh, organic, or responsibly sourced. Sometimes they’re not even fully cooked.

I often joke that styling food for photographic purposes has nothing to do with the food we actually like to cook and eat. Rather, the gig has everything to do with setting up expectations for an imagined gustatory experience to come.

We eat with our eyes first, after all. Food displayed with care creates visual appeal, influencing our perception of taste even before we pop a morsel into our mouths.

But real food is another matter. You can trick the eyes, but not the belly. A fantastic dinner party, for example, is built upon quality ingredients and good kitchen skills. How the meal looks is less important. Or is it?

In food styling, a mouthwatering image relies heavily on props. A plate of food can be made to look infinitely more delicious when lovingly plated, thoughtfully garnished, and presented on a table laid with crisp linens, fresh flowers, and candles.

Taste, in other words, is in the mouth of the beholder. Throw in some jovial conversation and a bottle of good wine, and you’ll feel like Ina Garten in no time.

Here are eight essential tips culled from my experience as a food stylist. Keep them in mind, and they’ll help make your holiday dinners not just tasty, but memorably delicious. After all, both food styling and entertaining have the same goal: creating a sense of pleasure.

  1. Lighting. When planning a dinner party, it’s unlikely that lighting tops your list of important details, but on set — whether in a photography studio or on location — it’s crucial to conjure the right experience. The soft glow of candles, ambient light from adjoining rooms, the warmth and flicker of a fire, festive strings of twinkling lights — each goes a long (and different) way to setting the scene that ultimately enhances what’s on the plate.
  2. Props. Once you’ve got the right ambiance, consider the story you want to tell. Look to the food and plates to suggest additional props. In the case of a dinner party, these props are generally choice of linens (not just napkins but tablecloth vs. placemats vs. table runner vs. bare wood table), flowers, and/or a centerpiece.

    You can go simple, with a bowl of seasonal fruit and nuts as a centerpiece, or get wildly creative. I once did a pear-themed holiday shoot, for example, featuring a tiny sleigh pulled by a Bosc pear with earmuffs and a scarf. A bistro-style French meal, on the other hand, might warrant a small chalkboard propped on the table listing the evening’s menu.
  3. Pears and plates, also known as “props.”
    Plates. Putting food on the proper plate means considering the plate’s shape, color, and size (the volume it holds), as well as how different foods relate to one another on the plate.

    Start with complementary colors (red peppers in a green bowl, clementines in a blue bowl, purple eggplant in a yellow bowl). An Indian feast with rice, dal, meat, and chutneys might call for a dozen colorful bowls or a traditional thali platter. A meal served on a banana leaf says, “Use your hands!” My husband’s all-time favorite meal included hand-thrown pottery for each of 27 courses of a traditional kaiseki meal.
  4. Dishing up. Your table is set, but now you’ve got to choose how to serve the food: Formal plating in the kitchen? A DIY buffet? Family-style serving from communal bowls at the table? Choreograph your parties by suggesting the interaction between guests. Formal service calls for restraint in styling and in your guests’ expectations. Likewise, a casserole straight from the oven to a trivet on the table says, “Dig right in.”
  5. Focal points. Stylists arrange edibles so that the eye is drawn purposefully around the items on the plate to the main event, whether that’s a juicy serving of turkey or a cloud of meringue. The goal of every food stylist is to make that item “pop.” (Yes, that’s the official term in the biz.) Remember the principle of focal points when you’re plating a dish or arranging a serving bowl.
  6. Contrast. A plate of food without texture, no matter how delectable, is a missed opportunity to add interest to the meal. Just as there are complementary colors, texture pairs keep your senses guessing. Think consistency, shape, and mouth feel: smooth lemon curd in a crunchy oatmeal crust, fried sage leaves on squash purée, or creamy goat cheese rolled in flaky sea salt and cacao nibs.
  7. Music. In work as in play, music has the ability to alter mood and energy. So choose your playlist accordingly: for example, light and bright for cocktails, more mellow for the meal itself, and finally peppy for dishwashing. Personally, I like reggae while finishing off a bottle of wine and washing wineglasses.
  8. Guests. Inviting the right number of the right people can be tricky, but it’s the key to balance, good conversation, and a mood that celebrates all of the above. Try to invite people from a mix of backgrounds, and keep the guest list small to ensure comfortable chatting.

Former pastry chef Ellen Jackson is a food stylist and freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.

There are 17 comments on this item
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1. by rahchachow on Dec 20, 2010 at 7:16 AM PST

To me, the most important part of entertaining is finding dishes that can be served cold, at room temperature, or put in the oven before the guests arrive. There’s nothing worse than Not being able to enjoy your guests because you’re stuck in the kitchen.

2. by Angel Lambart on Dec 20, 2010 at 7:24 AM PST

I always make sure to be aware of the food habits of my guests in planning a party menu. There is nothing better than having your guests show up and know that there will be something for them to eat, regardless of whether that is vegan or gluten-free or for your friend that is allergic to onions. We all need to eat and being considerate of your guests’ culinary preferences is the best way to say that you value them and their presence.

3. by Adam Orr on Dec 20, 2010 at 7:57 AM PST

Looks like a great read.

4. by Schenectady Greenmarket Farmers' Market on Dec 20, 2010 at 9:11 AM PST

Agree with the earlier comment--food that can be served at varying temperatures is key. I also have lots of fresh veggies and fruit for snacking. Beautiful grapes cut into small clusters. Stacked clementines. Scrubbed carrots and radishes from the farmers market.

I also like several serving stations instead of one to help circulation.

5. by Gretchen on Dec 20, 2010 at 12:20 PM PST

Totally agree! the mood, setting and the look of the plate completely set the tone for the evening. Think chicken in a paper bucket- or placed in a basket with a gingham tea towel covering it to stay warm. You KNOW which one will taste better, right? Now what if I told you both came from KFC and I just “hooched” up the other by placing it in a basket? I know which table I would have happier memories of.

6. by Amy T on Dec 20, 2010 at 12:27 PM PST

Agree with all the above. I would add that having organic “decorations” for each plate, dish, add a beautiful, natural touch for guests. Fresh herb sprigs, fresh cranberries, fresh parsley sprigs, even evergreen leaves from our forest outside.

7. by nekobasu on Dec 20, 2010 at 1:51 PM PST

I’m a big fan of the plating and the texture tips -- beautiful color contrasts and the right sizing really do make a huge difference. Since I cook vegan at home, I also focus on the texture (and color) of the food -- there are so many opportunities to be creative. Thanks for the other tips, I’m still learning!

8. by pknipple on Dec 20, 2010 at 2:52 PM PST

We love to do big multi course holiday meals. We make great dishes, but we haven’t mastered the art of getting things to the table without having to spend significant time in the kitchen. Plus because we taste for seasoning as we cook, we usually aren’t very hungry at meal time. We have a lot of fun doing it, though, and our family always loves the meals.

9. by Jeanne on Dec 20, 2010 at 7:21 PM PST

My favorite entertaining tip is to pick a good soundtrack. Music sets the mood for the party and also helps keep the conversation going.

10. by Cooking in Mexico on Dec 20, 2010 at 7:28 PM PST

My best tip for entertaining: leave nothing until the end. I prepare beforehand as much as I can, even small details. I try to anticipate guests’ requests. Then when everything is ready, I can sit down at my own party and enjoy myself.

11. by Gregg Sourbeck on Dec 21, 2010 at 8:51 AM PST

I like to get guests involved...making pizzas together is always a hit.

12. by Alaina on Dec 22, 2010 at 6:44 AM PST

It’s obvious, but I always make things that I can do most of the prep and even most of the cooking before guests arrive. I also make sure to have a wide variety of foods available so that everyone will walk away satisfied. My favorite appetizers are antipasti skewers with seared sausage, roasted red pepper, and an artichoke heart along side a beautiful vegetable platter with a homemade dip and even small single-serving glass containers with dried fruit and roasted nuts. It hits every note and always pleases a crowd!

13. by ruth_117 on Dec 22, 2010 at 11:15 AM PST

At family dinners we all help getting things ready and there is a lot of hustle and bustle leading up to the meal. I always love the feeling when we are all done and I look at the table and see what each of us have accomplished and marvel how great it all looks. Its always nice to grab a photo and reflect a moment on all the hard work!

14. by anonymous on Dec 22, 2010 at 8:45 PM PST

I’ve never had the classic problem of “not being able to enjoy my guests because I’m stuck in the kitchen.” I just invite my guests into the kitchen! Everyone seems to relax, and conversation is no problem with plenty of conversation starters between cooking styles, cookbooks, asking for help, ect.

15. by Diane Brush on Dec 22, 2010 at 9:19 PM PST

As many other readers have commented, I try to do as much as I can before the guests arrive. I definitely have some wine and wine glasses set out. I also make sure the table is set perfectly before the guests arrive. If I am working on any last minute dishes, I invite anyone and everyone to help, and everyone is very happy to be asked. It’s easy to ask the guests because everyone seems to congregate in the kitchen before the dinner is served.

16. by catiekk on Dec 23, 2010 at 8:47 AM PST

My favorite tip is to cook whatever I can in advance, especially using a crockpot!

17. by Kim on Dec 23, 2010 at 2:00 PM PST

Thanks, everyone. We’ll notify the winners soon. Happy holidays!

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